- Jesus and Muhammad: Parallel Tracks, Parallel Lives
Jesus and Muhammad is intended to present the historical figures of Jesus and Muhammad to a general audience. By summarizing earlier secondary scholarship, and offering a critical analysis of the "portraits" of Jesus in Christian literature and Muhammad in Islamic literature, Peters challenges both religious traditions. Jesus and Muhammad is an interdisciplinary work inasmuch as Peters works with the scholarship of both early Christian and Islamic Studies. Yet he does not integrate these two fields; nor is there any apparent reason to do so. Indeed, there is no compelling scholarly reason to present these two biographies together; the Jesus and Muhammad of history are not joined by time, place, or culture. Evidently, Peters chose to write about both figures in one work in light of public interest. Nonetheless, he treats his subjects seriously, avoiding the truisms of interreligious dialogue and focusing instead on historical analysis.
Peters ends his introduction with the sort of candid declaration that is not often found in such works: "I have been at this so long that I have by now run out of any conceivable excuse for not getting it right. So this time I did" (xxiii). In the course of the work, Peters clearly states which traditional ideas he considers legendary—for example, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem or that Mecca was an important trading city in Muhammad's day. But he is also wary of ideologically informed readings of these two figures. He refuses to reduce Jesus to a disgruntled rabbi or Muhammad to a social reformer. But to say that Peters "got it right" is another thing altogether. In this case, he might never have been able to do so. The trouble with Peters' task is most evident in the case of Muhammad. For one thing, he means to subject the traditional biography of Muhammad—which appears to be, above all, formed by haggadic exegesis of the Qur'an—to scrutiny. Thus, for example, he holds that a group of "Jewish Christians" (such as the Ebionites of Late Antiquity) "made an enduring impression on Muhammad" (119), even though no such group is to be found in the traditional biography of the prophet. Yet Peters' relies elsewhere (indeed, almost everywhere) on that traditional biography. He explains, for example, that Qur'an 2:142-50 is concerned with God's command to Muhammad to stop praying toward Jerusalem and to pray instead toward the Ka'ba in Mecca (137). This passage, however, says nothing about Jerusalem, the Ka'ba, or Mecca; only the traditional Islamic exegesis of this passage does so.
Peters, understandably eager to complete his own biography of Muhammad, generally relies on traditional notions. If he truly believes that "there was no sensible way by which an untrained Meccan . . . could have produced such sophisticated verse as we find in the Quran" (82), he might have concluded that the portrayal of Muhammad as an [End Page 439] untrained Meccan was developed for apologetical purposes, but instead he seems to accept it faithfully. Similarly, he might have been less eager to accept the traditional idea that Medina was a largely Jewish settlement when not a single inscription or archaeological find suggests that it was. In Peters' defense, he is dealing with highly problematical sources: The Qur'an has few historical details; later Islamic sources seem to be based on the Qur'an; and no contemporary Christian or Jewish source has anything to say about Muhammad.
The sources for the life of Jesus, as Peters himself notes, are less problematical, leaving him on safer ground as he follows the historical scholarship. He describes the hypothetical Q document—which he regards as the oldest source about Jesus—and the Gospel of Mark to be the most valuable documents about Jesus for historians. But he also turns to Matthew, Luke, Paul, and Acts for insights about the execution of Jesus and the rise of the early church. Ultimately, Peters challenges traditional Christian notions about certain points. He argues, for example, that the mission...